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Why We Are Free Range and Not Pastured Raised

                                                        -By Jesse Laflamme

At Pete & Gerry’s, we recognize that the egg aisle is a confusing place.  That’s why we hope to earn your trust so that instead of having to understand every industry term out there like cage free, free range, or pasture raised, you can simply reach for our package with confidence, because you know we’re doing the right thing for hens, farmers, and for your family. My family has been raising chickens for three decades.  We have the hard won expertise that comes from doing something for a long time and constantly improving on it as you go. That makes our company pretty unique in the egg industry. We hope that our customers discover that we care about our hens so much that if there was a better way to raise them —­ we’d be doing it.

For many decades, the egg aisle has been almost entirely caged eggs coming from hens living indescribable lives. Finally, after years of advocacy and the growing awareness of consumers about this barbaric form of agriculture, things are beginning to change. We expect that caged eggs will be a thing of the past within the next 10 years.  That’s great news for chickens, and for all of us. But, it also means that there will now be lots of less scrupulous companies trying to jump on the bandwagon. In most cases, this will be the former caged producers now producing “cage free” eggs, but essentially using the same industrial approach they used in the past. It will represent a marginal improvement in hen welfare, because they will finally be able to move around. But the facilities where they are raised will in no way represent what a consumer would consider to be a farm in terms of scale, crowding, cleanliness or transparency.

On the other side, there is also a group of companies competing to persuade customers that our Certified Humane Free Range standard, which you can read about here, is somehow not sufficient or adequately humane.

Outdoor Space Isn’t An Arms Race

The Certified Humane Free Range standard was developed by scientists and animal welfare experts. It calls for 2 sq. ft. of outdoor access on grass per hen. Now, this may not sound like much if you imagine a bunch of hens all occupying their own little 2’ X 2’ patch of grass. However, it’s important to note that this is just an average over a huge flock, and that not all of the hens use the pasture space at the same time. Not even close. Hens are actually a lot like people in this regard. Whether it’s cool outside, hot, or a delightful 72 degrees, a great many of them would simply prefer to be inside at any given moment. In fact, in a typical flock, there are hens that never want to leave the barn. It’s safe, comfortable, cool in the summer, warm in the winter, and there’s fresh water and feed. As a company, we don’t force hens to go outside. We give them ample ways to access the outdoors, and then let the girls decide. If you spend time watching them, you will see a steady stream of hens entering and exiting the barns. At any given point in time, the hens that are outside have far more than 2 sq. ft. apiece. And, they are very social birds, so while they don’t wish to be crammed into giant warehouses, or tiny cages, they do want to huddle into little groups and cliques to cluck about whatever is on their minds. So there is always more grass and dirt areas open than occupied.

Pasture Raised brands are advertising that they offer from 35 sq. ft. to 108 sq. ft. per hen and suggesting that 2 sq. ft. is insufficient. More is not better in this case. More is just more. And it costs the farmers more to own and maintain that extra space for no discernible purpose that we can see. Agricultural land is scarce and expensive, so forcing small farm families to operate and maintain an excess of it just to brag about how much square footage each hen gets seems insincere and gratuitous to us.

There is a category of very small farms that can make the larger space work economically. But those are typically mixed use, hobby-style, micro farms that exist in a completely separate economic climate, selling to farmers’ markets, CSAs, and to their local area at considerably higher prices. Mainstream grocery distribution requires a higher level of efficiency in order to even get on the shelf. So we support this other style of farm wholeheartedly, just as we support backyard chicken coops, but they are a very small piece of the larger change we seek.

Our bottom line at Pete & Gerry’s is first, what is right for the hens? We believe that we understand that better than anyone in the industry, and we follow the independently audited standard set by Humane Farm Animal Care for Free Range. Second, we want to do what is right for our farmers, and that means helping them raise hens humanely without undue costs. Third, by doing the latter, we can deliver great eggs to our consumers at a reasonable price

It is an exciting time to be in the business of producing humane, ethical, organic eggs. In my lifetime, I have not seen the industry change this dramatically or quickly. Over the next year, we believe many more consumers will begin to decide what they think a reasonable egg farm should look like. We believe that a small family farm producing to the Certified Humane Free Range standard is the best way to meet our country’s egg demands in a humane, sustainable way. We don’t believe that means there is no such thing as too much space for hens, and we’re pretty sure the hens don’t either. So we will continue to try to balance the needs of hens, our farmers, and our loyal customers as best we can.

2 responses

  1. Audrey says:

    You don’t need to climb on the backs of small farmers to sell your eggs. Pasturing chickens is the farthest thing from wasteful. Chickens destroy whatever land they are on in a matter of hours, they are vigorous foragers. Most small farmers who are pasturing use chicken tractors for this very reason. So the birds actually have access to fresh pasture every day. Its called Holistic Management, look it up, its the future of farming. Free Range is just a stepping stone. I congratulate you on what you’re doing, much better than cage free. But trying to make it sound like pasturing is wasteful? Inefficient? Insincere and gratuitous? Really? It makes you sound ignorant, and you have a lot of other good info on your website. Its not a matter of more space, its a matter of fresh space. Because there is just no way you can have a grassy pasture if theres chickens in it all the time. You either rotate the pasture or the chickens, so which one are you doing? Do your chickens have access to more than one pasture? Or do you rest the pasture by keeping them inside the barn? Im sorry but Im a farmer who can’t be fooled by a couple cute pictures. You claim that you’re all about supporting the family farm, maybe you mean to say the farms that have contracts with you? Why else would you be slamming farmers who are raising the bar, the same way you brag about doing? Honest questions here. Thanks, no hard feelings.

    1. Jesse Laflamme says:

      Thanks for your input and thoughtful response Audrey. First, let me say that we think there is room for all kinds of farms, from small, multi-use farms with crops and a variety of animals to backyard chicken coops for families or neighborhoods. We fully support all efforts to bring back a human scale to farming. Unfortunately, we, as a country, have a very long way to go still. Due to the economic disadvantage they face in a system that favors industrialization, more small farms go out of business every decade than start up. We also believe in an absolute baseline level of humane animal care best represented by the Certified Humane standard. Our goal as a company has been two-fold: provide a market for small egg farms (our typical farm is operated by the immediate family members alone) and to put a humane product on the shelves at a price that consumers are willing to pay. While that price is considerably higher than factory farmed eggs, it is still within reason for most American’s food budgets.

      That’s why we suggest that while there is nothing wrong with a pasture raised standard of 108 square feet, based on my experience as a 3rd generation egg farmer, we find our hens (and our pasture) do quite well with less. Our hens do turn the area of pasture next to the barn into dirt with their digging and dust bathing, but that almost always leaves a vast expanse of grass pasture left over for those that want to venture further afield. Please note that our operations are mostly egg laying farms and we are not trying to fertilize fields with hen manure for the purposes of growing crops as you are likely describing with Holistic Management. Again, those are great little farms which we fully support, but they represent a business model that would not allow us to put cartons on shelf for less than $10 a dozen. We seek to fill that part of the market that is willing to may more for ethical eggs, but may not be willing to pay that price, or perhaps doesn’t have access to those type of eggs to begin with.

      We do not claim to be the complete answer to our country’s agricultural problems or necessarily every person’s choice for eggs. But we do feel that we are a very significant driver of change away from the deplorable state of the egg industry as it currently exists. Thanks again for your comments.
      -Jesse

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